AMITAV GHOSH’S NEW BOOK
JNANPITH AWARDEE AMITAV GHOSH’S NEW NOVEL EXPLORES, IN A NEW AGE, MAN’S BLOATED PRIDE IN HIS ABILITY TO REASON
Having expressed his disappointment in his 2016 book The Great Derangement, with the failure of literary novelists to confront climate change, Amitav Ghosh put his imagination where his mouth is and wrote that novel himself. Gun Island is a blockbuster, a panoramic, intensely current, depiction of the violent upheavals of the Anthropocene, the cataclysmic effect man has had on the planet.
But it would be reductive to read it as motivated solely by environmental concern. Ghosh is asking questions here about human certainty, about our faith in reason, in rationality, in empiricism, in what we think we know.
Dinanath Dutta is the novel’s ‘Man of Reason’. A middle-aged, antiquarian bookseller—“there are few expressions”, he reflects wryly, “in the English language that are less attractive to women than ‘Rare Book Dealer’”—Dinanath lives a quiet life between Brooklyn and Calcutta. Ghosted by a long-time girlfriend for no reason he can fathom, he finds himself in the latter, throwing himself into social situations, in contrast to his monk-like solitude in the
US, hoping to find romance. At a party, he meets a “glib, vain, precocious, know-it-all” relative (familiar to readers from Ghosh’s Sundarbans novel, The Hungry Tide), who introduces him to the obscure legend of ‘Bonduki Sadagar’, the gun merchant. Dinanath (or Deen, as he is known in Brooklyn) had written his doctorate thesis on the Bengali folkloric hero Chand Sadagar, a merchant who tries, and mostly fails, to “escape the persecution of Manasa Devi, the goddess who rules over snakes and all other poisonous creatures”. Bonduki Sadagar appears to be a variation, intriguing enough to Dinanath that he upends his life to go on a wild goose chase through the Sundarbans, Venice and Los Angeles, among other places. In the process, he loses almost all hold on reason.
“It’s a strange feeling,” he tells his friend, the famous professor Giacinta Schiavon, “as though I’m not in control...as if I were fading away, losing my will, my freedom.” Schiavon is key to the novel, an extravagant Venetian, the brilliance of whose life contrasts with the penumbra cast by the death of her husband and daughter. It is she who challenges Dinanath on his ‘rational’ shibboleths. “I pride myself,” he tells her early in the novel, “on being a rational, secular, scientifically-minded person. I am sorry if this does not conform to stereotypes of Indians—I will not, on any account, go along with a whole lot of superstitious mumbo-jumbo.”
Meeting Ghosh in a small conference room in the utilitarian business centre of a luxury Delhi hotel, it’s hard to reconcile this kindly, goateed, even cuddly figure with the storytelling shaman of Gun Island, this apostle of the irrational, of the bewitchingly strange. It seems faintly ludicrous to be discussing the uncanny in a setting so bland, so prosaic. Unsettling even, like Ghosh’s own image overleaf, or the photo on his phone that he shows me—an aerial view of Venice in which it is indistinguishable from the Sundarbans. Unheimlich, Freud called it, the familiar made strange. We think of great cities—L.A., Venice—as the acme of human achievement, of what man can build. Ghosh reminds us of their fantastical, preternatural qualities, of their vulnerability. And so Dinanath arrives in an L.A. ringed by wildfires, a hellscape. In Venice, he encounters a venomous spider, like him a visitor from warmer climes. About a hundred pages into Gun Island, Dinanath gets on a plane, a “man-made womb, where everything served to protect me from that world of mud and its slithering, creeping inhabitants”.
It is, he comes to see, another of his delusions. A man at the risk of disappearing into himself, Dinanath is forced into confrontation with the outside. He must find the connections between serpents, the elemental mud of the Sundarbans, the supernatural properties of folklore and the ecological calamities of the present and the human calamities, with migrants forced to abandon their homes in such numbers and under such circumstances that the idea of home itself is rendered obsolete. Gun Island is not always convincing but it forces us to ask questions about what we do find convincing. And why.
GUN ISLAND by Amitav Ghosh PENGUIN `699; 288 pages